People and Places II

by Michael Peppiatt


For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror that we are still able to bear;
and we revere it so, because it calmly
disdains to destroy us .
–Rainer Maria Rilke , The Duino Elegies, 1912-22

Figures grow out of their own shadows, rising and materializing on mellow summer streets. Light and dark weave a solitary silhouette in the dappled shade beneath a tree. A lake mirrors the chance movements of a brooding sky, the mountain beside it still damp with blackness of light. The whiteness of nocturnal snowflakes smothers the world in weightless oblivion. Birds rend and scar the crystal clarity of a Venetian morning, their wings hanging like curses on the sky.

Bill Jacklin’s whole existence as a painter, draughtsman and engraver has been devoted to an exploration of the infinite varieties of light and darkness. Early on (far earlier than most people, the bitter gift of a traumatic childhood), Jacklin became aware of all life as a struggle, a clash between extremes. Having been expulsed into the light, we spend the rest of our existence knowing (to put it simply and amiably) that we will at any given moment return to the night. This duality inhabits the very grain of Jacklin’s paint. If his darkness glitters, then every sunburst is as surely rimmed round with shadow. Beneath the Mozartian deftness of his technique, Jacklin reveals the equally Mozartarian awareness that life draws its brilliance, like a star at night, from the sombre infinity in which it is set.

Switching effortlessly from thronged metropolis to country isolation, from the raptness of a dance class to the fragile serenity of Central Park, that ultimate rus in urbe, Jacklin’s topography derives much of its identity from the confrontation of these elemental forces. Yet it also fizzes with some unseen force of its own that fulfills it, puffing out its contours in gorgeously grained hues, yet threatens to extinguish it. In one seaside scene, molecules bubble up out of the waves to form a sudden outcrop of bathers, Seurat-like mirages of luminous skin momentarily, very momentarily, bolting foam to cloud. Vast forests are sunk in a cold blue oceanic light that will rot them and the carefree figures strolling through. Even an apparently slumbering landscape can be seem to be seething, a volcanic fury about to be unleashed over Arcadia.

In previous exhibitions, Jacklin has been drawn to specific sites notable for their strange human conjunctions. He has become the acknowledged poet of Grand Central Station, where not only the fleeting figures caught in their daily commute but the cathedral-like building itself is rendered and absorbed in bursts of luminosity, giving grandeur and a terrible fragility to the frantic commerce of our lives. Like fireflies, the figures rushing for their morning train or propelled by desire and vanity across dance floor and ice rink live only in the instant of light, never more alive than as the shadows gather. The lugubrious transubstantiations of the meat markets, flesh feeding on flesh, were formerly also recorded in haunting detail by this English-born lyricist of Manhattan. No doubt the ever-changing face of that city could be restored (like James Joyce on Dublin) from these meticulous mappings.

In the present choice of recent work, both places and people have become more generalized, as if Jacklin’s increasing mastery both of his subjects and his pictorial means has allowed him to strip more and more of the particular away to arrive at his ultimate goal of revealing the universal. Meat-porters, skaters, dancers have become simply ‘man’ (which also means ‘woman’) just as Venice becomes a ‘calle’ or street. Jacklin has been working from the particular to the general throughout his long, distinguished career as an artist. Jacklin’s problem along the way has been the need to disrupt what his abundant natural talent allows him to do too easily: he regularly and deliberately breaks his flow; thus each show chronicles a new set of stylistic and technical challenges that the artists has set himself. As Jacklin has gone on record as saying, he is impelled to create an order out of the chaos he senses constantly lapping around him, and then question that order. The apparent control he brings to the whirlwind of energy emerging in his imagery should not, however, blind us to the enduring point of his paintings.

Lyrical though they seem, paeans to the light and energy, sequels at first sight perhaps to a certain Impressionist joie de vivre , Jacklin’s works contain an undeniable darkness. While celebrating chance epiphanies – the empty street exploding with bird wings, snowflakes on a winter night, the lake menacingly subtle chronicler of human frailty in a universe of bewildering complexity and relentless change. Not only are light and darkness locked in a permanent, Manichaean battle for dominion, but every contour in the world that we poor mortals strive to know shifts out of focus in an endless molecular chaos. Fluttering birds and falling snowflakes are the emblems of an underlying gaiety of Jacklin’s images, we partake, unwittingly perhaps but no less surely, of a far deeper darker truth about our bearings in existence.

—Michael Peppiatt, 2009